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Domestic Partner and Civil Union Benefits

Editor's Note: Deciding whether to offer domestic partner and civil union benefits is a choice employers have to make.

Tracy MorleyOverview: Domestic partners are generally defined as unmarried couples (of either the same or opposite sex) who are in a loving, committed relationship, and seek the same benefits as those granted to married couples. Civil unions are legally recognized arrangements similar to marriage. While there are no federal laws that require employers to provide domestic partner or civil union benefits in their employee benefit programs, some state laws have different requirements.

Employers that extend benefits to domestic or civil union partners often include:

  • Medical, dental and vision benefits;
  • Leave for bereavement or personal or family illness;
  • Life and accident insurance benefits;
  • Attendance at company sponsored events;
  • Use of gyms and/or other recreational facilities; and
  • Employee discount programs.

Extending benefits to domestic or civil union partners, whether required or not, can have significant benefits for an employer, particularly in the areas of recruitment, retention and employee morale. Some questions an employer should consider when deciding whether to offer domestic partner or civil union benefits are:

  • Who qualifies as a domestic or civil union partner?
  • How will the domestic partnership or civil union be verified?
  • What is the minimum number of years a couple must be together to be considered domestic partners?
  • Is the couple required to live together and be financially responsible for one another?
  • What is the process for terminating a domestic partnership or civil union?
  • What are the tax implications of extending coverage to domestic or civil union partners?

Trends: Many states have changed their definition of marriage and now recognize same-sex partnerships. The repeal of section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has significant implications for employers and how they manage employee benefit plans.

Tracy Morley, SPHR, Legal Editor

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HR guidance on how to determine whether to offer domestic partner and civil union benefits.